Keeping her eyes fixed on me, my mother let the sugar drop into the cup. It sunk to the bottom with a small splash, a few bubbles gasping to the surface, and finally I understood.
That Sunday morning I had been cutting up soldiers for Violet, my daughter.
“One soldier, two soldiers, three soldiers,” we counted, my daughter giggling. “Frrrreeeee soldiers,” was accompanied by a little saliva shower for her piece of military bread.
The phone rang and I left Violet in her high chair to smear butter on her hand.
“It’s Pat. Your mum’s mate.”
I could imagine my mother’s disgust—being referred to as someone’s mate. “How are you? How’s Terry?”
“I’m fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine.” She paused, the line crackling in discomfort. “It’s your mum, Carrie. She’s had a stroke.”
“Last night. She tried to call but there was no answer so she got the doctors to call me.”
I sighed. Another one she’d never let me forget. “Does Luke know?” I glanced over at Violet.
“Not yet. I was going to call him after you.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll do it. Where is she now?” I glanced at Violet, who was now sticking her soldiers butter-side down to her bib, all lined up, standing at attention, waiting for their orders. She gave me a big grin when she noticed I was watching her. I stuck my tongue out. She giggled, and went back to her soldiers.
“She’s in hospital,” Pat was saying, “but she’s okay. Her left side is a bit dodgy, but nothing major. They’re keeping her in to be safe.”
“Have you already seen her?”
“First thing this morning. She’s in St. John’s.”
“Cheers Pat. I guess I’d better go and see her.”
“Be nice to her, pet. She’s fragile.”
The suburb where I grew up was one of the nicer ones in London. At least it was when I was a child. The only strange thing that happened was some man flashing me and my brother, Luke, as we cycled home from the park one day. I didn’t understand what was happening as I was only six and was more worried about missing The Muppet Show. My brother, being older, shouted at me to keep up with him as he zipped down the road.
As we were putting our bikes in the garage, sweat trickling down my back, my brother grabbed my arm. “Don’t tell Mum about this,” he hissed. “She’ll stop us going to the park if she knows.”
I nodded. Losing park privileges was not an option. My mother had become somewhat neurotic since my father left, and we relished the opportunity to stay out of the house, leaving her alone to curse what life had done to her.
My brother bounded up the front steps two at a time, me trotting behind him. My mother yanked the door open before Luke even had a chance to put his key in the lock.
“When I say be back by seven, I don’t mean seven on the dot. I mean 6.50!” She gave my brother a swift clack around the head—he was the oldest and therefore meant to know.
My brother rubbed his head but stayed silent.
We went into the lounge, and turned on the TV. I prised my shoes off and sat on the floor, near my brother’s feet. He was muttering to himself from the sofa.
“Why doesn’t she just say 6.50?”
“What?” I asked.
My mum came in. “So what would their highnesses like for dinner?” She was beaming, content now the babies were back in the nest.
“Chips!” I said immediately.
“You can’t have chips every day. Try again,” my mum replied.
“Spag bol?” my brother suggested.
“Fine.” She frowned at me, suddenly noticing how red I was from cycling. “Do you feel alright Caroline? You’re very red.”
My brother pressed his foot on my fingers in warning.
“Yeah, we had a race on the way back.”
My brother’s foot released its pressure.
“Hmm. You’ll find there’s an ‘s’ at the end of yes, Caroline. We’re not common.” She went back into the kitchen.
I glanced at my brother, who mouthed at me “We’re not common,” putting on his snooty face. I started giggling, stopping only when my brother got bored and started crushing my fingers again.
We’re not common.
My mother’s favourite expression. Never said in company of course, but the fundamental phrase of our upbringing. Maybe she thought if she said it enough we’d take it to heart. Her parents had to focus on having food on the table each night—my mother had the luxury of being able to focus on other things.
Once Luke and me had been having a contest at the park, to see who could spit the furthest. We waited for an old couple to pass by so we could continue spitting into the lake. Luke watched them shuffle by, arm in arm.
“We’re not common,” Luke suddenly said, as I was busy trying to get as much saliva in my mouth as possible.
“What?” I gurgled.
“We’re not common,” he laughed, and spat a good metre-and-a-half into the lake. He slapped me on the back, making me swallow my supply.
I laughed because he was, not really knowing why.
She refused to speak about my father, saying she wanted us to make up our own minds, but seeing as he had left one Saturday before the morning cartoons, neither of us thought much of him. I used to entertain daydreams where he’d pull up on his motorbike and we’d drive down to the coast, sitting on the beach eating chips, vinegar running down our fingers. But he disappeared, and that is what I could never accept. I couldn’t understand how a parent could do that. Many years later, after I had Violet, I couldn’t imagine a circumstance which would make me leave her behind, and yet that’s what my father did. Me and Luke never spoke about it either. The couple of times I tried he cut me off with “He’s gone.” He said it with such finality I let it go.
All of this came to a head with that call from Pat, my mother’s best friend. They’d been friends since they were sixteen, spending weekends driving down to Brighton on their scooters, sitting behind their boyfriends, wearing their helmets on their arms like handbags. Pat’s husband was known by everyone as a lovely bloke.
“You know Terry, don’t you?”
“Yeah, he’s a lovely bloke.”
A typical conversation. Being a little naïve I didn’t realise that a lovely bloke was also what people said about the Kray brothers. Lovely blokes as long as you’re on their right side. Get on the wrong side and suddenly they’re not so nice, making you concrete boots and chucking you in some dank part of the Thames. God only knows how many are at the bottom of the river, feet encased in a concrete cube, swirling with the current, bobbing around, fish nibbling at their faces.
When I saw her she was sitting up in bed, a cup of tea on the table beside her. Other than her hair being a little messy she looked the same as always.
“How many times have I told you not to stare, Caroline?” she said in greeting.
I gave her the obligatory kiss on the cheek, her skin smelling faintly of roses.
“Mother. How are you feeling?” I sat on the chair at the end of the bed.
“I’ve been better.” She kept fidgeting with the sheets, rolling them up and down with her right hand. “Where’s your brother?” she asked, glancing behind me.
“At work,” I replied. “He said he’d be in later.”
“I could be dead by then.”
“We can but hope.” I smiled.
She glared at me. “You’re so much like him sometimes,” she muttered.
“Your father.” She wiped away the saliva from the left side of her mouth with a distasteful look.
“How’s that?” I asked, surprised. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d mentioned him.
“Making stupid jokes at the wrong moment. Never knowing when to be quiet. Never knowing the right thing to do.” She looked around the ward, as if it held an answer to a question she hadn’t yet asked.
“Common?” I asked. I’d heard all these criticisms before, grown up with them.
“All I’ve tried to do is give you two the best, and neither of you have a bloody clue. I wanted to give you a better start than I had. None of that playing on street corners, letting boys kiss you for five pence.” Her Cockney accent was coming out. “Getting knocked up at sixteen, your family sending you away to have the baby and then leaving it behind.” Her words were starting to slur slightly and I thought about calling the nurse, but she kept talking. “Knowing your husband’s sleeping with your best mate and not being able to do anything about it.” Her eyes teared up as she looked at me. “I should’ve left him before you two came along. That was my chance but I let it slip by. First your brother and then you. Two stones around my neck. My mother rabbitted on about that’s how life is—you do the best with what you’re given and that this was my cross to bear, but I couldn’t. I refused. He was no model for you and Luke to grow up with. Chasing skirt, eating jellied eels. I wanted better than that.” She looked out the window, fixating on something I couldn’t see. Her eyes snapped back into focus as she turned back to me, her tears gone. She waited a few long seconds before continuing. “So I spoke to Terry.”
Terry—he’s a lovely bloke.
“He always did have a soft spot for me.” She gave a smile I hadn’t seen before.
“What did you do?” I asked, feeling slightly sick, already knowing the answer.
She didn’t reply. She took her cup of tea, and held it delicately in her right hand. With her left she took a sugar cube from the dish and, looking at me, dropped it into the cup.
Tara Kenway is a Paris-based writer who spends her time reading, writing, running and begging her cat to let her sleep later than 6am. For the latter she has little success. E-mail: tkenway[at]gmail.com